Unfortunately for modern society, active shooter incidents are a phenomenon that will not be going away anytime soon. In fact, they seem to be on the rise, with many attackers researching, studying, and trying to outdo those that came before. A study on active shooter locations (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2019) showed that a majority (65%) of the 277 active shooter incidents studied from 2000-2018 occurred in places of commerce and in educational facilities.

This affects all of us in our daily lives, as we all engage in some sort of commerce and many of us have children in our schools systems. Add in a few other aspects of our lives and this issue has the potential to affect us even more. Many in our communities feel that the answer to prevention is a firearms issue, while others feel it is a mental health issue, or it may be due to concerns over violent video games. What is clear is that actions taken not only during an active shooter incident but more importantly before the incident occurs, are critically important in impacting the prevention of and survival during such attacks. Although there is no clear or easy answer to solve this issue, prevention of these incidents is best dealt with at the local level by the community stakeholders, in all of facets of society, working together in order to mitigate the threat.

One of the goals of law enforcement is to try to prevent such incidents and to do so, we need to better understand what drives an attacker to attempt or to complete such a heinous act as a mass attack. If an attack is directed by a foreign entity, or a terrorist or other group, it is most likely more of a covert operation that requires significant planning, coordination, and control for success and that can make it more difficult to prevent. Involvement from the intelligence and counter-terrorism community will most likely be required to detect and hopefully intervene. However, there may still be a chance for citizens to intervene if behavioral changes and suspicious activity are recognized and reported to law enforcement. If the attack is inspired, it is more ideology driven. Motivation may come from a religious ideology or inspiration could come from previous active shooter attacks. Many active shooting attacks can be tied back to Columbine (Langman, 2019). The attacker may have developed a grievance or sense of injustice against a particular person or business. Research shows that in 2018, “In half of the incidents, grievances appeared to be the main motivating factor (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019, p. 7).”

The grievance may be enhanced by a recent stressful event or events that have occurred in the attacker’s life. Be aware of concerning behaviors such as mental health issues, suicidal ideations, concerning interpersonal interactions, making threats, substance abuse, and any increased fascination with firearms or weapons. “Two-fifths of the attackers exhibited a fixation… to the point that it negatively impacted aspects of their lives (National Threat Assessment Center, 2019, p. 8).”

Usually, those driven by inspiration want their opinion or story told, so there may be opportunities to intervene prior to the attack. During the period before the attack, the attacker may have created and maintained a diary, log, or manifesto that details their motivation. In many cases the attacker leaks information through verbal communication with family and friends, online postings, and other written communications prior to an imminent attack. Be cognizant of this leakage as there may be unintentional or intentional comments made about feelings and thoughts that relate to a pending violent act. The FBI found that, “On average, each active shooter displayed 4 to 5 concerning behaviors over time that were observable to others around the shooter (Silver, 2018, p. 2).” Be vigilant and report any such concerns to a family member, teacher, counselor, and especially to law enforcement. If you are on the fence about doing so, don’t be. It might just be a call for help and you have found yourself in a position to do so. You may find that not only have you saved your loved one’s life but also the lives of many others.

A review of FBI data shows that in a Study of 277 Active Shooter Incidents in the US Between 2000-2018 (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2019), the problem is actually increasing in intensity over time. As such, society needs to be more in tune to preventative measures. There have been numerous studies completed in recent years studying the motivation of mass attackers and active shooters and what has become clear is that there is no one profile that can be used to identify an attacker. However, many offenders who engage in targeted violence may display certain behaviors during pre-attack planning and these may be noticeable to those who know the offender. Often attackers don’t just “snap” but follow The Pathway to Violence (Calhoun, 2003) which has several stages. They are Grievance, Ideation, Research and Planning, Preparation, Breach, and Attack. The Grievance can be either real or perceived. It may be in the form of revenge, righting a wrong, or wanting notoriety and fame. It is the why that drives the potential attacker. Ideation includes the belief that violence will be the solution to the problem and the decision to engage in violence. Research and Planning is the who, what, when, where, and how. It’s selecting targets and determining the means. “77% of shooters spent a week or longer planning an attack(Silver, 2018, p. 2).”In 73% of the cases there was a direct link between the attacker and the site(Silver, 2018, p. 8).”  Preparation includes procuring the means to carry out the attack such as securing weapons, ammunition, practicing with those weapons, and maybe the obtaining of special clothing. “46% of the shooter actually spent a week or longer preparing for the attack(Silver, 2018, p. 2).” Breach is taking affirmative steps to get ready, such as conducting surveillance, making a dry run, and testing security at the site. Attack speaks for itself, it is taking action. There are opportunities for intervention at each one of these stages. Success in this endeavor depends on people’s awareness and the willingness to act on their suspicions.

Law enforcement is not all knowing. We need the assistance and input of everyone in the community to be more vigilant and assist the police in doing our job, which is to protect others. In this day and age, family, friends, neighbors, teachers, counsellors, managers, supervisors, coworkers, and law enforcement all play a vital role in keeping our communities safe. We, as a society, need to be more attentive and trust our instincts. One of the ways that society can aid the efforts of law enforcement is to be more aware of the leakage that can occur prior to these incidents. Leakage is the “intentional or unintentional clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes, or intentions that may signal an impending violent act. These clues can take the form of subtle threats, boasts, innuendos, predictions, or ultimatums. They may be spoken or conveyed in stories, diary entries, essays, poems, letters, songs, drawings, doodles, tattoos, or videos (FBI Critical Incident Response Group, 1999, p. 16).” Trust your gut, share your concerns and follow up on those red flags. Stopping violence before it starts is a learnable and necessary skill. It is what is required to make a difference and stem the flow of attacks.

We have some information of concern, now what? Employing a threat assessment model is one way to get community based input involved before an attacker is able to put their plan into action. Getting stakeholders from all aspects of the community involved early in the process can potentially mitigate the situation and allow for the subject to receive the assistance they need to develop coping skills and reduce the effect of the stressors they may be feeling. The FBI has many resources available online to guide you in this endeavor that can be located at Reports such as Making Prevention a Reality: Identifying, Assessing, and Managing the Threat of Targeted Attacks(Behavioral Analysis Unit—National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, 2017) can help communities work cooperatively in order to prevent further tragedy. Other references are available as well that will provide guidance and aid in creating a threat assessment team in order to better address issues at the local level. Some examples that have been applied to educational facilities are the Virginia Model (Cornell, 2006), the Salem-Kaiser Model(VanDreal, 2017). There are resources available to assist with your operational planning such as the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) School Threat Assessment Response System Toolkit(North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, 2017) and Enhancing School Safety Using a Threat Assessment Model: An Operational Guide for Preventing Targeted School Violence (US Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center, 2018).

Active shooter incidents are not predictable however, they are preventable. We have all heard of the slogan, “See Something, Say Something.”  (Kay, 2002) We now need to take it to the next level and add, “Do Something.” Be more aware and report any suspicious behavior to law enforcement. We as a society need to have more situational awareness and realize when something is outside the norm. Be aware of people, what they usually do and when they usually do it. If the behavior seems suspicious or concerning, tell someone. “For the majority of the attackers, the concern others felt was so severe that they feared specifically for the safety of the individual, themselves, or others.”(National Threat Assessment Center, 2019, p. 11) According to past analysis done by the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, when concerning behaviors were noticed by others, “83% communicated directly with the active shooter, 54% did nothing, and 41% reported behavior to law enforcement.”(Silver, 2018, p. 2) As a society, we need to do much better than only reporting 41% of concerning behavior. In instances such as an active shooter incident, community stakeholders at the local level play a direct role in the threat assessment and management effort. We all have to work together, in concert, in order to prevent these tragedies. No longer can anyone afford to sit idly by and be a complacent bystander, we need to get more involved, step up and intervene. The general public is the force multiplier that is needed to address this issue (Behavioral Analysis Unit—National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, 2017, p. 11). Active shootings and mass killings are an area where it really does take a village. Be more involved. Your individual actions could make a drastic difference to the severity and overall outcome of an active shooter incident. The life that you save might just belong to someone you know and love.


FBINA #243

James Cullen is a veteran police officer having served full-time since 1993 and is the Deputy Chief of the Groton Police Department in Groton, Massachusetts. Through the Police Executive Fellowship Program, he is also a Task Force Officer assigned to the FBI Violence Reduction Unit Active Shooter Team. He holds certifications as an Active Shooter Instructor in both Law Enforcement and Civilian disciplines. He was a 12 year member of the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council (NEMLEC) Regional Response Team and graduated from the FBI Crisis Negotiation Course. Chief Cullen has earned two Master’s Degrees, one in Criminal Justice Administration from Western New England College and the second in Leadership from Norwich University. He is a proud graduate of the 243rd Session of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Chief Cullen is a presenter at the FBINAA’s ongoing School Shooting Prevention Leadership Forum series.